UPDATE 2.20pm: More than 100 survivors of the asylum seeker boat tragedy — including two suspected Indonesian crew members — were last night being treated for shock and exposure as the search for remaining survivors was called off.
About 90 refugees, including friends and relatives of some of those rescued, are now believed to have drowned after their crowded vessel capsized on Thursday afternoon about halfway between the Indonesian island of Java and Christmas Island.
Border Protection Command confirmed this afternoon that 17 bodies had been recovered during the search.
However it said all vessels and aircraft had been stood down in the search for bodies, based on medical advice and reports confirming that there were no more survivors in the area.
Weary, in shock and suffering from a range of injuries, the last of the 110 survivors plucked from the water arrived on Christmas Island early yesterday.
They thanked and shook hands with crew members from merchant ships who had winched them up the sides of their boats and told island authorities they were grateful to be alive.
But as the grim realisation dawned that some of their relatives had not made it, the men were given access to phones to call family members to relay news and let them know they were safe.
Department of Immigration and Citizenship regional manager Joe Feld said trauma counselling was now being offered to the 110 survivors — all men — who had been pulled from the sea since the rescue operation began.
“They’ve got concerns over their friends and relatives who may or may not have been on the boat,” he said.
“Some relatives were on the vessel but there’s no indication there were any women on board.”
He would not say whether some of those calls were to Australia but said it was believed that some of the 1200 asylum seekers already housed in detention on the island after arriving on earlier boats either knew or were related to survivors or those who died.
Except for three men who were being treated in hospital yesterday, the rescued men were all being held together. Two Indonesians were among them and believed to have been part of the crew.
The survivors are believed to be predominantly Afghan but immigration authorities said this was still being determined.
“Whilst we can say they are Afghan or Pakistani they could be ethnically Pashto or Hazara and we are just going through those processes now,” Mr Feld said.
While rescue planes and ships continued scouring the waters 100 nautical miles north of Christmas Islandy, a second boatload of survivors was brought ashore on the HMAS Larrakea late Friday in a risky overnight operation.
Customs district manager Michael Farelly said because of the condition of some of the men, rescue teams decided not to wait until daylight to transfer them to the mainland.
“There was some risk but given the situation and the extreme circumstances, we thought it was worth taking those risks,” he said.
Wearing white disposable overalls, the 16 men looked weak and in shock as they walked or were brought ashore on stretchers and in wheelchairs.
Bodies of some of the dead were unloaded behind them.
Three of the more seriously-ill survivors were airlifted to Perth on Friday — one with suspected spinal injuries — and a fourth yesterday morning.
Mr Feld said the survivors were weary and in shock.
“They’ve been through a lot. They were out there a long time,” he said.
“But once we’d managed to feed them, give them clothes and shower them — all those basics needs — their condition improved.”
The small island community has scrambled to react to the emergency.
Doctor’s appointments for residents were cancelled late last week and locals were told they would have to wait until at least tomorrow for previously scheduled treatment after the island’s medical chief scrambled to get together all available doctors and nurses to deal with the survivors.
Christmas Island acting administrator Steve Clay said yesterday he was proud of the local efforts and said the tragedy had affected the community.
“They knew their job. They executed it very well and we’re very proud of them,” he said.
“It is a human issue and they just pitch in and do what they need to do.
“We recognise this is a sensitive time for people in Christmas Island.
And a lot of the people who are in the agencies, and the volunteers that helped out with the transfer, are locals.
“We have to be aware of that. We’ve asked people to look after others and to look for help if they think they need it.”
Yesterday, the island’s authority issued a community bulletin offering support to any residents affected by the latest tragedy.